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Houses of worship ‘in no rush’ to reopen as Maryland eases restrictions on indoor gatherings

Bishop Oscar Brown, senior pastor at First Mt. Olive Freewill Baptist Church, will hold in-person services for the first time in 12 weeks this Sunday.

The Rev. Travis Knoll, senior pastor of Hunt’s Memorial United Methodist Church in Towson, set out weeks ago to ensure that his congregation would be ready to reopen when coronavirus-related restrictions on indoor gatherings were eased.

A group he led stockpiled masks for the church and installed touchless faucets. They calculated how to ensure social distance in the pews.

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Yet even after Baltimore County officials announced that houses of worship will be allowed to resume holding limited indoor services in the county starting Friday, Knoll and his flock are in no hurry. Hunt’s Memorial will not offer in-person services until June 28 at the earliest, he said, and even that would be an outdoor event.

“Like every congregation, we have people who are in high-risk groups and others who are not,” he said. “We need be certain the environment is as safe as possible. Our No. 1 priority, after worshiping God, is doing so in a way that makes us good stewards of our health.”

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Ever since March 19, when Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statewide order banning social gatherings of more than 10 people, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples across Maryland have been effectively shuttered.

Religious leaders have responded creatively, taking most of their usual offerings online while serving up such innovations as drive-through confessions and interactive Torah-study sessions.

But all concede that nothing replaces gathering in person, whether it’s to trade “amens," sing hymns, or simply shake hands with fellow believers.

“When [worshipers] come together physically, there’s a certain energy that is lacking at a monitor or screen,” said the Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Jr., longtime senior pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore. “It’s all a big part of maintaining what I call your spiritual sanity.”

All of which is why there was excitement across faith traditions last month when Hogan announced that the state would allow houses of worship to resume holding indoor services, if only at 50% capacity, provided their counties allowed it.

Counties less gravely afflicted by the COVID-19 outbreak, such as Carroll and Harford counties, quickly adopted the 50% ceiling, while “hot-spot” jurisdictions such as Baltimore and Baltimore County kept the 10-person cap.

That changed Thursday when Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced it would the 50% criterion, assuming safety protocols are followed, and Baltimore City followed suit Friday.

For the most part, though, religious communities in both jurisdictions say that even though they’ve been preparing, they’re in no hurry to reopen, government permission notwithstanding.

At Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, whose property straddles the city-county line, Rabbi Andrew Busch said several factors make him and his congregation wary.

One is the popularity of the synagogue’s online services. Shabbat services that typically draw about 200 worshipers a week have been attracting four to five times as many via Zoom, Busch said. And continuing health concerns reduce the urgency.

The prospect of a return to congregational singing, which promotes the sort of exhalation that transmits the virus, not to mention to simple face-to-face conversation, raises health concerns for many, Busch said, considering the advanced age of many members.

“I’m sure we have some who wish we were moving faster, but people overwhelmingly have a great understanding of what the risks are sitting in a room with other people [and] worshiping,” Busch said.

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The longtime spiritual and civic leader said, from what he’s hearing, most in the Baltimore area’s Jewish community share his synagogue’s caution.

So do many Protestant clerics.

The Rev. David J. Ware, rector at the Church of the Redeemer, a North Baltimore Episcopal parish, has been watching the evolving statistics on the spread and severity of the coronavirus. They’ve convinced him to counsel patience.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has published guidelines spelling out minimum safety requirements for its 117 parishes, but it has granted priests the right to make adjustments within the framework.

Redeemer, which has been offering well-attended, live-streamed services daily along with its Sunday worship webcast, has made a raft of safety-related adjustments, removing prayer books from the sanctuary, disinfecting the building and determining how to apportion seating safely.

Given Baltimore’s continuing high infection rate, though, Ware, too, is exercising caution.

“People do want to gather, and they’re missing face-to-face community, but they’re in no rush to get back at all,” said Ware, who anticipates no return to any form of physical gathering before August.

“The difficult truth continues to be that in-person worship is still a long way off,” he said.

New Shiloh’s Carter has come around to a similar view.

In the early days of the pandemic, the celebrated pastor’s congregants — more than 60% of them 60 or older — were eager to reopen, he said, but as time passed, most embraced more caution. A health ministry group within the church helped temper Carter’s optimism.

After Hogan gave his broad permission to gather at 50%, the pastor authorized a “top-to-bottom" deep-cleaning of New Shiloh’s sprawling building with an eye toward offering some form of in-person Holy Communion.

But after Baltimore Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young extended the 10-person cap for city gatherings, Carter scaled back his expectations.

Now he’s thinking it might be possible to reopen after the July Fourth weekend, but even then it would be with limited attendance, limited music and just one service of no longer than 60 minutes.

Carter, who is in regular touch with a group of about 20 other pastors, said many predict that normal indoor worship won’t return “until September at the earliest.”

Bishop Oscar Brown, senior pastor at First Mt. Olive Freewill Baptist Church, will hold in-person services for the first time in 12 weeks this Sunday.
Bishop Oscar Brown, senior pastor at First Mt. Olive Freewill Baptist Church, will hold in-person services for the first time in 12 weeks this Sunday. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Sentiments are more divided at First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church in Linthicum, where some are questioning a decision its pastor, Bishop Oscar Brown, made this week.

Brown will open the church for services this Sunday, he said, in part to follow the example of early Israelites who, as described in the Old Testament, risked their lives to stick to their worship practices.

Brown has led efforts to prepare the church for reopening, a process that included acquiring temperature gauges, carrying out multiple cleanings, providing personal protective equipment, and taping off seating areas at six-foot intervals.

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He’ll also operate at 30% capacity, not 50%, and while he plans to allow choir singing, he’ll require vocalists to wear masks.

Not all members are pleased.

“Some are happy, as they realize what I’m saying — doctors and police officers are returning to what they do, so why can’t we, as people of God? Others are saying, ‘Pastor, are we moving too fast?’ " he said. “I believe it’s our season to come back, as long as we do so safely.”

Knoll’s Towson church, meanwhile, stands out as a model of the pandemic’s negative effects as well as its silver linings.

Because it’s blessed with few tech-savvy members, Knoll said, the congregation hadn’t developed the capacity to live-stream services prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Now they’re about to install a new router, making live streaming possible, and like many houses of worship, Hunt’s Memorial will offer that service through the pandemic and beyond.

But because some upgrades are not complete, Knoll said, they don’t expect to offer outdoor services for weeks or indoor ones for months, and even then they won’t feel quite the same.

For now, in his view, safety remains paramount.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to be a disease vector,” he said.

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